At the Mouth of the River of Bees collects 17 of Kij Johnson’s stories, the bulk of which have been published over the course of more than two decades. The book includes a few of the adaptations of Heian-era Japanese myths that Johnson is known for, including the Sturgeon Award-winning ”Fox Magic.” It also features the World Fantasy Award-winning “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss",” two Nebula Award winners (“Spar” and “Ponies”), and a bevy of Nebula and Hugo finalists. Johnson is so decorated, and some of her stories so widely linked on the Internet, that it’s likely genre readers have seen one or two stories from this collection already.
Kij Johnson is a strong craftswoman, and that is no mean feat. A line that is natural, effective and easy to read seems as though it must have been correspondingly easy to write. But muscular prose and strong narrative construction such as Johnson’s are hard-won, the work of long whittling and smoothing. The collection’s design is as elegant as the writing; the typography and cover illustration complement the content.
For its aforementioned virtues, I didn’t like this collection as well as I feel I should have. These stories resist reductive, simplistic themes, but they also seem to resist all forms of pin-downable purpose. It’s difficult to guess what about a particular story made Johnson feel she needed to write it. The stories are well-written at the line and scene level, but you can’t sink your teeth into them, can’t love and hate and discuss them.
The contents of At the Mouth of the River of Bees vary widely in length. There are longer stories, 22 pages plus, some of which could be considered novellas. These engaged and held my attention, were pleasant to read, and sometimes lingered with me after I finished them. Of the shorter stories, some are well-realized (“Chenting, in the Land of the Dead” and “The Empress Jingu Fishes”), some are evocative (including “At the Mouth of the River of Bees” and ”Wolf Trapping”), and some seem to peter out before they run their short courses, perhaps because their rather flimsy conceits are just as soon exhausted as stated (such as “Names for Water” and “Schrödinger’s Cathouse”).
The worlds Johnson creates, such as Ping from “The Horse Raiders,” and the ones she invokes, such as feudal Japan, are fleshed out with such details as the stories call for. She doesn’t indulge in touristy exoticism with these depictions; she puts in the research and developmental thought that her settings require to function.
Johnson’s stories, at least as represented in this collection, circle a handful of connected themes. She’s interested, as writers usually are, in thinking about storytelling and meaning-making, and the role of stories in the formation of culture. Johnson seems to have a fascination with Empires in all stages of their lifecycles: emerging in “The Empress Jingu Fishes,” growing and centralizing in “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” bloating into overripe authoritarianism in “Dia Chjerman’s Tale,” and faced with ecological collapse in “The Horse Raiders.” Like Ovid in Metamorphoses, she’s also interested in the permeable boundaries between animals and humans — in animals who want to become people, in people who want to become animals, in animals who can speak and in animals who can act in human ways but can’t speak of their experiences. She’s also drawn to the bonds between animals and people, and the tensions between love, service, safety, and control implied by those relationships.
The prevailing theme of the collection is women’s roles in heterosexual relationships, and this absorbs much of Johnson’s attention. The topic’s potentially interesting, but this intense focus results in an entire collection of short stories in which there are no friendships between women. Viewed in the aggregate, this trend becomes disturbing. To do At the Mouth justice, there are a few possible exceptions, but ultimately I find them unsatisfying. In “Dia Chjerman’s Tale,” such friendships might be situationally implied, but they are not explored. In “At the Mouth of the River of Bees,” a woman and a female bee have a single, long conversation. “Ponies” features female friendship, but it’s a site of artificiality and horror. The collection overall features numerous female characters, many of whom are competent and sympathetic, yet almost no stories pass the Bechdel test. That metric doesn’t exhaust the question of whether a text successfully includes and characterizes women, but it’s a valid entry-vector into the question. Johnson’s female characters largely walk in a world of men, in which the only other women who exist are relations without many lines or other bit characters. In contemporary settings, Johnson often gives so little information about the lives of her female protagonists that these women seem like disembodied tools of or spectators to the stories.
“Ponies,” in which young girls have (somehow fake) talking pegasus-unicorns, which they must mutilate in order to come of age and have friends, is the collection’s most overtly feminist piece. It’s atmospheric, and conveys a strong sense of defiance and institutional oppression — all to the good, but what does it actually make its readers think or feel? That sometimes girls are mean to girls in an effort to maintain their status within larger patriarchal systems not of their own making? That teenage girls, commodity culture, and the process of adolescence are crucibles for that? Between Caroline Bingley’s class-anxious policing nastiness and “Mean Girls,” I’m fairly sure none of that is news. What about Johnson’s work has captured such critical acclaim? The craft is all there, I don’t dispute that, but what is it being used in the service of? What made “Spar” and “Ponies,” according to their awards, the most highly-regarded genre short stories of their respective years? What about them, other than vague atmospherics, made a lasting impact on people, and what shape did that impact take? If Johnson aims to say something damning about female interactions, I wish she’d venture it, rather than leaving the matter at an awkward cluster of omissions.
Similarly, in this host of stories set in alternate pasts, presents and futures, many of which explore a range of romantic and sexual content, there are no queer relationships. Not even casual mention is made of queer couples or queer experiences. There are two potential exceptions. In “Schrödinger’s Cathouse,” a whore could be male, female, or something else; the narrator (not to be confused with the author) finds the prospect deeply unnerving. In “Spar,” a woman and an ungendered alien trapped together in a lifepod brutally deconstruct the fantasies the underlie much of SF’s sexualization of the threat of “Invaders from Mars who want your women.” The characters have sex both as their only (though highly flawed) means of communication and because they lack anything else to do. It’s a tentacle hentai set-up played grimly. The amorphous, purposeless perversity of sex with something entirely Other functions as both a commentary on the tropes in play and as a tidy reiteration of the essential problem of sex, intersubjectivity, and the ultimate impossibility of truly experiencing, or communicating with, any consciousness outside your own. Yet while both stories deal with the radical potentialities of sexuality, they (and the collection as a whole) don’t frame this discussion in the context of anything other than a core heterosexual paradigm. Collections don’t need to contain Obligatory “Queer Themes” Stories, but when queerness is entirely absent from a wide universe, this starts to look dubious.
Johnson’s sexual politics remind me of Helen Oyemi’s recent novel Mr Fox and of Catherynne Valente’s Deathless. Both novels have been praised as a feminist explorations of sexuality and relationships, but despite these central preoccupations, they’re largely interested in rehashing “straight couples: how do they work?” — ground covered more searchingly and evocatively by Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter decades ago. It’s not that everything that can be said about the straight relationship has been said; obviously the topic’s evergreen. It’s just that the works people who give awards are excited about because they presumably deal with women, sex, and relationships in interesting, feminist ways via the devices of speculative fiction aren’t actually accomplishing the things readers are praising them for in any fresh or especially masterly way. What does Johnson have to say on these topics, which she writes about frequently and which obviously interest her, that’s her own, or that advances the discussion?
Johnson’s stories circle and circle rich concepts but never really hit upon anything. They never commit themselves to the definite statements, ambitious conceptual stretches, or emotional investments regarding their themes that are the necessary foundations of load-bearing stories.